As Mitsubishi Aircraft entered perhaps its busiest year of flight testing yet for its MRJ regional jet, marketing inroads and progress at the engineering level had finally begun to accelerate to the point of satisfaction for aircraft program managers and top executives at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. By the time the company arrived in Singapore, program teams had flown four flight test airplanes a total of some 1,500 hours, while production crews had attached wings and begun painting the fifth flight-test airplane.
Following no fewer than five major program delays, the MRJ has reached a point at which the company can integrate several design upgrades through the course of the year and test the effects of temperature extremes on the reconfigured avionics bay. Meanwhile, another six airplanes have entered various stages of assembly, laying the foundation for a plan to accelerate production “in a phased manner” until eventually reaching a rate of 10 per month.
First, however, engineers must endure what Alex Bellamy, head of the MRJ’s product management office in Nagoya, described as an extremely busy year of test flying in 2018, culminating in installation of the final avionics bay configuration in the fourth flight-test example. Speaking with AIN before the start of the show, Bellamy detailed the status of the flight-test program at Moses Lake, Washington, where the four existing flight-test airplanes had completed more than 50 percent of their duties ahead of expected certification in late 2019. Targeting first delivery to launch customer All Nippon Airways in mid-2020, program leadership now expects the MRJ flight-test airplanes to clock as many as 3,000 hours, some 500 hours more than originally allocated.
“It’s a 24/7 operation [at Moses Lake], said Bellamy. “We’re wringing as much data as we can out of those aircraft. Toward the end of [the] year we expect another aircraft the join the fleet, which represents the final [certification] configuration.”
Bellamy also reported that the company plans to initiate the installation of an upgrade package “in certain critical areas to bring them up to that configuration standard.” In fact, he said, engineers have already incorporated some small changes into the existing aircraft. Of course, the biggest upgrade involves the avionics bay upgrade in Flight Test Article (FTA) 4, which involves relocating components and rerouting wiring to satisfy certification requirements related to “extreme situations” such as water leakage or an explosion in the area of the avionics bay.
Flight-test Fleet Duty
“All four airplanes will be touched in some way, and all four have their own mission in life,” said Bellamy. FTA-1, for example, serves as the aircraft into which Mitsubishi plans to incorporate systems changes, while FTA-2 primarily measures engine performance and fuel consumption. “I don’t see many changes on that aircraft, and actually we’re looking to exit that from the program quite early,” Bellamy added.
Meanwhile, program managers have paid special attention to FTA-3, which serves primarily as the program’s avionics test article. “Avionics is one of those things in aerospace development we have to keep a very close watch on,” explained Bellamy. “Software drives reliability and also functionality from a pilot’s perspective. So we’ve invested a lot of time and energy making sure that the quality of the software from our partner Rockwell Collins is high, and we’ll continue to upgrade the software on Aircraft 3 through [this] year.”
Mitsubishi calls FTA-4 the “mega-mod” for obvious reasons; it incorporates most of the configuration changes and modification work. Finally, once the fifth flight-test example enters the fleet by the end of the year, it will perform function and reliability testing and what Bellamy called the T5 evaluation, which involves evaluations by certification agencies of pilot procedures and checklists and the manner in which the aircraft operates.
Bellamy said the program experienced no interruption in flight testing resulting from findings in October of falsified inspection certificates at Kobe Steel, which supplied suspect metal for parts used in the MRJ. Mitsubishi’s investigation on each of the affected parts used in the MRJ revealed no safety deficiencies and found that they meet all design standards. Bellamy couldn’t identify exactly which parts the probe involved, but he insisted that the incident would not affect the certification schedule.
Similarly, the company expects no lasting schedule effects from a short interruption of testing resulting from the August 21 in-flight shutdown of a Pratt & Whitney PW1200G during testing of FTA-2. Following an emergency landing in Portland, Oregon, crews removed the engine and sent it for examination to Pratt & Whitney, which has since found that the incident resulted from a faulty component, not a design problem.
Overall, the program has encountered no problems with the Pratt & Whitney engines in general, according to Bellamy. “Other than the in-flight shut-down that we had, we’re very comfortable with where we stand on engines,” he said. “A lot of our engines team have experience working on the sister engines in the family...We’re very happy with the engines in general, and one of the first batches of certification testing that we’ll be doing early next year is around the engine because of its level of maturity.”
When the ANA airplanes enter service in 2020 other variants of the geared turbofan will have flown in revenue service for four-and-a-half years, by which time Pratt should have settled the so-called teething problems they have encountered related to items such as extended re-start intervals, premature combustor liner wear and leaking air seals. For ANA, engine maturity could present one measure of consolation in the long wait for first delivery.